There are few things better than spending an afternoon with a good book and a delicious cup of coffee. Except, perhaps, spending an afternoon with the author of that exceptional book at Wisma in downtown Lake Bluff.
Such was my great fortune on a summer afternoon to find a quiet table with one of the most-talked-about young fiction writers in the country, Lake Forest’s Rebecca Makkai, whose first book, The Borrower was an Indie Next pick, an O, The Oprah Magazine selection, and a Booklist Top Ten Debut. With her newest novel, The Hundred-Year House hitting bookshelves July 14, we sat down with Rebecca right before her multi-city book tour was scheduled to begin.
As the wind from Wisma’s open front doors softly blew Rebecca’s hair into her eyes, she retucked it behind her ears with a whimsical smile. “How could anyone not be inspired by this beautiful place?” she asks.
Rebecca’s newest book is set at Laurelfield, a historic estate that once housed an arts colony (remind you of anywhere nearby—could it be Ragdale?). Doug, the husband of the estate’s heir, desperately needs the colony files to get his career—and his marriage—back on track. But what he discovers when he finally gets his hands on them is more than he bargained for. Doug may never learn the house’s secrets, but the reader will, as Rebecca leads her audience through a thrilling journey into the past of this eccentric family.
The Hundred-Year House took Rebecca about three to four years to write. “Because I wanted to write a book that would go back in time and explore things in the ’20s, the ’30s, and the ‘40s, I did have to map out what this story was going to look like before I started,” she says. “Sounds crazy, but my outline was about 50 to 60 pages before I began.”
As the mother of two little girls, Rebecca does most of her writing in the morning. “I drop my little one off at school at 8:30 a.m. and then grab a coffee,” Rebecca says. “The Lake Forest Library doesn’t open until 9 a.m., so I’m one of those people standing at the door waiting for them to open. But once I get in there, I have about two hours to write.”
Writing a novel with historical elements, it was important to Rebecca that her story ring true. “I’m writing fiction, it’s okay for me to lie,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve been reading books before when the writer loses me because a scene he’s describing doesn’t make any sense. I was once reading this novel that was set in Chicago, and he was talking about the beautiful waters of Lake Huron. That kind of burned a hole for me in that entire book. I want to prevent the eye-rolling where I can.”
To help her best describe the time periods she was writing about, someone suggested she get her hands on an old Sears catalog. “It was genius,” says Rebecca who found the years she was looking for on eBay. “The catalog was this time capsule of information.”
Having lived on the East Coast for a time, Rebecca could have found inspiration for her book anywhere. But it was growing up in Lake Bluff and now living in Lake Forest that spoke to her the most. “The houses here are incredible,” she explains. “There’s one on Green Bay Road that’s covered in ivy and been empty for a while—I just want to get in there and explore. I love these homes where you can feel the layers of history.”
Today, Rebecca and her family live on the campus of Lake Forest Academy where her husband is a full-time faculty member. Deeply embedded in the Chicago literary community, an adjunct professor at Lake Forest College, and a regular participant in Ragdale’s residency program, Rebecca can’t imagine writing from anywhere else.
As she puts the finishing touches on a collection of short stories that will be published next year, ideas are starting to formulate about her third novel. “There’s so much more to writing than the actual craft itself—the business side, the stuff that they don’t teach you when you’re in school,” she says. “You learn to write to serve the story. You tune out those voices—the reviewers, the book clubs, the agents, and write to what the story needs. It’s a losing game to try and anticipate a reaction that you may or may not get. The reaction always comes from something you didn’t expect.”
-Ann Marie Scheidler // Illustration by Kirsten Ulve